Fireflies

The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources has resumed their survey program ‘Light Up West Virginia’ to study firefly species in the state.

BLUEFIELD — The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources has resumed a survey program launched last year called, “Light Up West Virginia,” which aims to better catalog species of fireflies in the region.

The program is a citizen science survey of lightning bugs, fireflies and glow-worms, lead by State Zoologist Mack Frantz and the West Virginia State Division of Natural Resources (DNR). They launched the program last year after realizing the state’s firefly population was declining.

“When it comes to the firefly, it is believed there are several factors,” Frantz said. “One might be chronic mowing, others would be use of pesticides or herbicides. Another one that people do not often consider is light pollution. You can imagine it is as if you are asleep and someone flips on a light, it is going to disturb you and it is the same with their signaling.”

Signaling, for a firefly is how they attract mates. Most fireflies only emerge in complete darkness, their bioluminescent ritual putting on a show for potential mates. However, with light pollution, these mating rituals may be disrupted, further causing the decline of their population.

“There are some exceptions to that. One of the most popular fireflies is the Big Dipper Firefly and that is the one that typically people see in their backyards where they have adapted well to being in that environment,” Frantz said. “You might think that firefly populations are doing well because of that one species but they come out before it is completely dark, so they are not as sensitive to light pollution. The majority of firefly populations need that darkness. That is what is driving the general decline right now.”

Frantz said he is interested in documenting all species and studying them for conservation rank assessments. He also noted that there may be plenty of “un-described” species in the region. He noted one species that was recorded about 70 years ago and has not been recorded since.

“There is a potential to have several dozen species of fireflies, but there is no one out there actively looking for them, so this is where there is an opportunity for tapping into citizen scientists and finding out what kind of diversity we have in West Virginia,” Frantz said. “This is just a way to develop that baseline information.”

With the “soft-launch” of the program last year, the West Virginia DNR started with local naturalists groups and streamlined the online survey.

“People can make it as easy or as involved as they would like,” Frantz said. “There are only certain questions that are required. Other questions, if they documented it well enough, we can maybe get down to the species level.”

Other questions on the survey include location, date, the time the fireflies were observed, the type of habitat and temperature and weather conditions.

“We ask for temperature, because the temperature effects how slow or how fast a firefly flashes. So the colder it is, the slower the flash, the hotter it is, the quicker they will flash,” Frantz said. “You will see absolutely no firefly activity under 50 degrees. Fireflies are unique in being soft-bodied so they need humidity and moisture so that is why we see a concentration of firefly species in the southeast and not really so much in the other places of North America as much because we have the perfect climate for them.”

One goal of the survey is to have a more comprehensive list of the types of fireflies in West Virginia so the DNR can determine if there are any species that need tracked for additional conservation or management. Frantz is particularly interested in one type of firefly that has become a world-wide attraction in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“It would also be interesting to see if we have the Synchronous Firefly (Photinus Carolinus), which is a unique firefly that all the males synchronize their flashes at all the same time,” Frantz said. “It has been found in all states surrounding West Virginia., which makes me think it is likely here as well.”

Frantz said that southeast W.Va. and southwest Va. are great spaces to look for some new species. He noted a trip he took to Pipestem Resort State Park when he perhaps identified a new type of firefly.

“I was at Pipestem last year for a Master Naturalists Conference and I was not even trying to find fireflies and I believe I found an un-described firefly species, just right by the lodge there, which just goes to show there are potentially other un-described species right under our nose, we just need somebody out there,” Frantz said. “That southeast pocket of West Virginia is one of the areas that we do have some firefly species that have not been documented in several decades, so it is an under-studied area.”

To participate in the survey, visit wvdnr.gov/fireflies. On the site, participants can upload videos and photos of sightings across Four Seasons Country.

Contact Emily Rice at erice@bdtonline.com

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